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MyPlate' – The first 100 days | Gustafson
It's been almost 100 days since the government released the latest update of its dietary guidelines. For the last 30 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have jointly given their recommendations for healthy eating to the American public – obviously without much success.
Today, weight problems are affecting two-thirds of the American population. Obesity rates have skyrocketed from 15 percent to well over 30 percent. Just by looking at these numbers, it is obvious that the government's efforts to improve our eating habits have been a dismal failure.
In June 2011, the traditional "Food Pyramid" was replaced with a new icon, named "MyPlate," which supposedly resembles a dinner plate divided in four segments of various sizes. Each part is dedicated to a different food group: Vegetables, fruits, grains and protein as well as a serving of dairy products on the side.
So far, reactions have been mixed. Many nutrition experts have praised the simplicity of the graphic, which they believe will make the guidelines more intelligible and user-friendly than its predecessors. Others have criticized it as too simplistic to explain the intricacies of important dietetic principles. All of this may be true, however, the main question should be: Are consumers better off than they were with the older versions – or without following any of the government's guidelines for that matter?
A great deal of attention was given this time to the "primary suspects" that most likely cause Americans to get fatter and fatter. Added sugars in sodas and processed foods belong to this group of offenders. So do fats, solid (butter) or liquid (oils). Sodium (salt) is seen as a major culprit, not only for weight gain but more so for high blood pressure and heart problems. Portion sizes are also of great concern. Americans do not only eat badly, they also eat way too much, the guidelines conclude.
Eat better, exercise more
So, the "MyPlate" recommendations call for a radical departure from all that. Forget the meat and potato diet of generations past. Instead, we are urged to eat at least five servings of vegetables, four servings of fruit, three cups of low-fat dairy products and six ounces of whole grains every day. Besides cutting back on fat, salt and sugar, we also better not indulge too much in alcohol and caffeine. Exercise, on the other hand, is something we can never get enough of: A minimum of 30 minutes daily is a must (60 to 90 minutes would be ideal).
Sounds good. But is it realistic? Considering our busy lifestyles and – with food prices constantly rising – our budget constraints, can the government seriously expect that people are willing or even able to follow its advice?
"I think there's a risk of these guidelines setting people up for failure," said Dr. Annette Dickinson, president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade association of dietary supplement manufacturers. "We know that people already aren't doing what the last guidelines said. Yet these are more stringent. It is good to have a goal to shoot for. But this is just not a real-life solution."
People don't change their eating habits because somebody tells them to. For most of us, it takes a heart attack to get us thinking about our diet, according to Mark Bittman, a New York Times columnist and author of the book "How to Cook Everything." "I couldn't follow those guidelines. I look at [them] and I'm going to adapt to as many of them as I can. But am I going to let this stuff scare me and run my life? Not unless I have to," said Bittman.
Clinton's change for the better
Someone who famously changed his diet in radical ways is former president Bill Clinton. As he stated himself in a highly publicized interview with neurosurgeon and part-time CNN anchor/commentator Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Clinton decided to become a strict vegetarian to better control his heart disease. For people like him, eating right is a matter of life and death. But that's an extreme situation. For the rest of us, there must be room for some flexibility, according to Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD, director of nutrition for WebMD Health.
"Start where you are today and look toward guidelines as goals. If you are eating one serving of vegetables, eat two or three. If you are not exercising, 90 minutes a day is too much. Take baby steps. Make the changes in your lifestyle that help you incorporate some of these recommendations a little at a time," said Zelman.
Bittman recommends a similar strategy. Seeing the larger picture of your nutritional needs is more important than following the recommendations to the letter, he said. "Set a rough limit for yourself. Be aware of the calories in different kinds of food, but don't get obsessed counting them. Say, I'm going to try to eat two cups each of vegetables and fruit every day and a cup or two of whole grains every day. Even if you get 600 calories from a Big Mac and 450 calories from a medium order of fries, if the rest of your day's diet were broccoli and apples and bulgur, you wouldn't be that bad off."
So, here are your more workable guidelines: Eat your burger or steak once in a while, if you must. But then make sure you're getting plenty of the healthy stuff for balance. And that workout schedule? Stop putting it off.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D." (www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter at twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD